Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Teaching (fka Clerking 4)

I haven't exactly been introducing these clerking pieces, but reading this I am very aware of what a historical artifact it is and feel funny presenting it as something fresh. Much has changed at my library. There are no "sleeves" I get for DVDs, and RFID has replaced almost all the barcode scanning. I'll be working my way through these pieces on my blog here until we're caught up. Roughly there are 15 from over the course of about 5 years. Lately I have another one stirring around in my head, but they'll cease to be numbered and will filter naturally into my blog.

Clerking 4

I am teaching you, the patron, all the time, like you’re a puppy. It is a series of small gestures, educational, poised at the edge of your consciousness. I don’t really have any business teaching you and so my lessons must be untraceable. But I also must run my desk as smoothly as possible, with efficiency. Also, of course, I want to make things a little more how I like them, I’m there a lot, so, I teach you.

The DVD sleeves you hand me I put in numeric order, with a slight touch of drama, right before you. This says you could have, if you wanted to help, done this. I could have organized with less flare, but I never ever do because this is a reminder I feel you can always use, whatever you decide to do with it. This may be your only lesson, but for me it will just be one of many hundreds, perhaps thousands, I hand out in an average clerking day.

You’re a helpful person, or you like to be. You stack all of your videos open faced so I don’t have to open them to scan the barcode. Unfortunately, I have always felt a mostly irrational hatred for this. I take a half second to cleanse my soul and then, completely without rancor, I gently and swiftly restack the videos normally, but slow down ever so slightly to scan the one video with the barcode on the cover, the one you had stacked so I would have had to close the video first.

You wait in my line even though you have no holds or DVDs, so I tell you that you could have used, if you like, the self checkout machines and not had to wait. You tell me that you prefer the personal touch. I divest myself of all personality in order to complete the transaction.

Let’s look at the check in desk. We are, generally speaking, the busiest library in my state so it’s a long one, most often filled with books. You drop your returns haphazardly on one of our more crowded desks and I will drop anything I can to neaten them or prevent an avalanche. Depending on what you did and how I responded, even within this, I may be teaching any number of variations on a basic lesson. You may have been only slightly careless and the stack delicate already and the pile in need of my help just as it was. This is me saying, gently, only barely, take care, friend. It is also saying, aren’t we rather overworked here? Just look at those librarians over there on the internet doing nothing. Or you may have strewn your returns sloppily in a way that requires no real emergency attention, but creates a bad base for the people coming after you. My (partly unnecessary) rush is a more strongly worded lesson and a bit of an admonition as well. If you interrupted me from trying to read the inner flap of an appealing looking book I may look particularly terrified as I appear to clutch your stack of items back from possibly killing someone. Or, lastly, you may have hurled your unstable mass of materials on teetering towers of ill placed and crowded returns causing some havoc and a small avalanche. I rush to this in high drama. You can temper the deep lesson you’re about to receive here through swift and profound apology and numerous recognitions of our put upon state and how you’re making it so much worse. You could, but I am not sure I’ve ever seen that happen. What you do generally in this situation is speak in the passive case. “Wow, this is a mess!” You might even make feeble allusions to how there’s no room for any returns and how you couldn’t find a parking spot. Then you’ll make some attempts to stem the avalanche. Here is where my experience comes in. By straightening a few particular piles and moving a couple strategic items on my side of the desk I can gloriously amplify every spatial and balancing error you’re making until your children are knee deep in books and audio visual materials. At this point, because all the fallen items are at your feet on your side of the counter you are forced to admit, sort of, that you knocked them off the desk. I can afford to become magnanimous at this point, and I tell you how it’s really no problem, and how I’ll take care of it. You learn that the library really is very busy; that you don’t really know how to stack books, and that these harried people are quite kind really.

Or you don’t learn it. Let’s go back to those DVD check outs. You have near your full check out limit of 20, many of them full seasons of TV shows, so you have well over one hundred hours of TV watching there. I think many hostile thoughts towards you and then begin, loudly, and with a strong initial hostility, to sort your copious DVD sleeves on the counter between us. I rather push the line of acceptable teaching, but I know I can, because I know you won’t be learning anything here anyway. I know because you come here pretty much every day. I know because you’re a teacher too. You have taught me that you’re very lonely and that you are not very bright and that you watch a lot of TV. And you have taught me that I am a clerk and my job is to check out your DVDs. So I do. And it’s a little tiresome, but it’s okay. And I talk with you about the weather, which is always pretty interesting around here.


  1. I think I am the person with the barcodes all facing outward, looking for a personal touch. I'll talk about the weather anytime over self-checkout. We need to keep as many jobs as possible.

    1. I really don't fault you, and for me that barcode era has passed anyway with the advent of rfid. Nevertheless I will say there's lot's of good reasons to come on over for the personal touch and I'm happy to see you, but I think its nicer to leave the rote work to the machines if you can. Jobs were getting sliced down before many of these machines were making a difference where I work, and I don't see a social advantage to people doing simple, repetitive tasks a machine can do faster and more cheaply, better we institute 30 hour work weeks, or have more time for staff to help people or both. As to your barcode facing you're probably doing it right. You can always ask.

  2. Before I made the transition to academic libraries, I would get frustrated with public library patrons refusing to use self-checks because they were trying to "save my job"...The reason our library installed self check machines was because our clerks and library assistants were overworked and they couldn't afford additional staffing. They hoped that by installing self check machines, that the decrease in rote work would enable the paraprofessionals to actually finish their other work.

    1. Yes, exactly! I even wrote a post about that, clerking 6 http://www.clerkmanifesto.com/2013/03/clerking-6.html
      hmm, don't know if that's a link without cutting and pasting, but then you've already lived it and actually put it rather succinctly. This first self check happened a long time ago at our library and managerially at the time they seemed to be compelled to replace the saved work with new work, but eventually the savings in work kicked in heavily and was only good.


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